Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Karl Barth on God's Faithfulness to the People Israel

"Is Israel's mission thereby superseded? No, on the contrary, through everything the Old Testament again and again insists that God's election holds and will hold to all eternity. This man who is thus set forth as he is in Israel, is and remains the man elect by God and the man in consequence entrusted with this mission. Where man fails, God's faithfulness triumphs. And this Israel, which is a great demonstration of man's unworthiness, at the same time becomes a demonstration of God's free grace, which asks no questions about man's attitude, but sovereignly pronounces upon man a 'nevertheless,' by which he is upheld. Man is nothing but the object of the divine compassion, and where he wants to be more, he must necessarily rebel against this Israel-existence. Israel is simply thrown upon God and simply directed to Him. Read the Psalms: 'Thou only....' Man appears simply as a hearer of God's Word, and is set, and remains, under God's lordship, even if he attempts time and again to withdraw from it. And in the fulfillment of his mission, in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, here most of all it becomes visible once more what Israel means. What else is the Jesus hanging on the gallows but this Israel once more in its sin and godlessness? Yes, this blasphemer is Israel. And this Israel's name is now Jesus of Nazareth. And if we glance again at Jewish history and see the strangeness and absurdity of the Jew, his obnoxiousness which repeatedly made him odious among the nations -- and now you may give the anti-Semitic register full play -- what else does that mean but the confirmation of this rejected Israel, which by God was made visible at the Cross, but also of the Israel with whom God keeps faith right through all stages of his wandering?"

--Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 79

Monday, December 28, 2009

Walter Brueggemann on the Revelatory New Social Reality of Prophetic Israel

"The ministry of Moses ... represents a radical break with the social reality of Pharaoh's Egypt. The newness and radical innovativeness of Moses and Israel in this period can hardly by overstated. Most of us are probably so used to these narrative that we have become insensitive to the radical and revolutionary social reality that emerged because of Moses. It is clear that the emergence of Israel by the hand of Moses cannot be extrapolated from any earlier reality. Obviously nothing like the Kenite hypothesis of the monotheism of the eighteenth dynasty in Egypt will help us at all. While there are some hints that the God of Israel is known to be the God of the fathers, that evidence is at best obscure. In any case, the overriding experience of Exodus is decisive and not some memory now only hinted at in the tradition. However those antecedents are finally understood, the appearance of a new social reality is unprecedented. Israel in the thirteenth century is indeed ex nihilo. And that new social reality drives us to the category of revelation. Israel can only be understood in terms of the new call of God and his assertion of an alternative social reality. Prophecy is born precisely in that moment when the emergence of social political relaity is so radical and inexplicable that it has nothing less than a theological cause. Theological cause without social political reality is only of interest to professional religionists, and social political reality without theological cause need not concern us here. But it is being driven by the one to the other that requires us to speak of and wonder about the call to the prophetic."

--Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 15-16

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Robert Davis (Advent #3)

Especially as performed by Sufjan Stevens, this is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Enjoy!

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The Friendly Beasts

By Robert Davis (English translation)

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable of wood
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother kind and good

"I" said the donkey shaggy and brown
I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried him safely to Bethlehem town
"I" said the donkey shaggy and brown

And "I" said the cow all white and red
I gave him my manger for a bed
I gave him my hay for to pillow his head
"I" said the cow all white and red

"I" said the sheep with a curly horn
I have him my wool for his blanket warm
And he wore my coat on that Christmas morn
"I" said the sheep with a curly horn

"I" said the dove from the rafters high
Cooed him to sleep that he should not cry
We cooed him to sleep my love and I
"I" said the dove from the rafters high

And "I" said the camel all yellow and black
Over the desert upon my back
I brought him a gift in the wise men's pack
"I" said the camel all yellow and black

Thus every beast remembering it well
In the stable dark was so proud to tell
Of the gifts that they gave Emmanuel
The gifts that they gave Emmanuel

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Remembering

I've re-posted below my Christmas reflections from last year; may they be a blessing to you this day.

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So much has been and is being written about Christmas, one pauses before presuming to add anything of meaning or value. Second in the Christian calendar only to Easter, the birth of Jesus announces the shifting of the very axis upon which time and space, past and present, God and creation turn in their relation to one another. Incarnation names the center point of history, because nothing before or since approaches its import, depth, gift, or power. (This is the mystery at the heart of G.K. Chesterton's magnum opus The Everlasting Man.) Quite literally, from Christmas on, everything is changed.

So: herein I step lightly; we are on holy ground.

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One helpful way to come to the stories of Scripture is as memory. The memory of God's presence and character and actions in the ongoing life, through time, of God's people and creation. So much of Scripture is filled with a prophet, an apostle, or God himself calling Israel/church to remember. Here forgetfulness quite nearly equates to sin, because spiritual amnesia is one and the same with spiritual atrophy. When memory fails, identity follows; and there is no faithfulness out of false identity.

So in reflecting on Christmas, I want to do a little remembering.

The first thing we ought to remember is that the infant named Joshua (for, of course, "Jesus" is the Greek approximation of "Yeshua," the Hebrew name meaning "Yahweh saves") was not an everyman, not a universal non-ethnicity; he was Jewish. The baby son of Miriam (for, of course, Mary's Hebrew name was that of Moses's sister) shared with his mother Jewish flesh: the same flesh as Ezra and Nehemiah the reformers; as Jeremiah and Isaiah the prophets; as Josiah and David the kings; as Deborah and Samuel the judges; as Joshua his namesake and Moses the lawgiver; and as Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, the fathers of Israel, God's people. This little baby boy is a son of Father Abraham.

Why remember such a seemingly obvious detail? Because the church has chronic memory loss about this "minor" fact, and -- true to Scripture's equation between forgetfulness and unfaithfulness -- the result is centuries of vitriolic anti-Semitism. (Many think this has been cured in the way modern American Christians interact with their Jewish neighbors. I have my own thoughts about that.) Therefore we cannot emphasize enough in our tellings and retellings of this grounding story that the baby Jesus was, in fact, a Jew.

Next we step back and look at the surroundings. A pregnant teenage girl, traveling with her fiance, looking for a hotel. Nine months along, no less. Though we might not repeat them in church, we have names to whisper behind such people's backs.

Illegitimate. Slut. Bastard.

Let us have no doubt that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph heard these things (and worse) along the way and throughout their life together. Not exactly what we would expect for the earthly arrival of the sovereign God of the cosmos -- and undoubtedly bewildering to a young engaged Jewish couple whose child, they were told, was the promised deliverer of Israel.

Building off of this disreputable situation, we see in the very beginning of Matthew's gospel the genealogy of Jesus (the "genesis" of the Messiah, as well as of the New Testament): the coming king as "son of David, son of Abraham," rightly so, for we expect the anointed one's lineage to be both royal and unquestionable. Yet ... oddly, there are four women mentioned, not a usual feature of these kinds of lists. Not only that, but -- as Richard Beck wonderfully draws out -- these women, each one, were involved in sex scandals: Tamar the trickster, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the foreigner, Uriah the adulterer.

Of course, even our labels view them from a place of masculine power; they could equally be called the wise, the cunning, the faithful, the victim. But that is the point for Matthew's gospel, because it is precisely the (male-dominated) cultural expectations he is subverting with the inclusion of these women, crescendoing with the young virgin, pledged to be married yet already pregnant, the ultimate sex scandal herself.

This is the way the Son of God comes to us: a pregnant, unwed teenage girl.

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What else to remember?

The place: not a sweet or well-kept "nativity scene," but a dank, dark, tomb of a stable. An inlet cave smelling of urine, manure, and sweaty animals. When God comes to us as unexpected stranger, he is welcomed not by the warmth of a bed or the knowing hands of a midwife, but rather by the cold darkness of braying and crying, straw and seed. Into this swirling chaos of creatures, the promise of new creation is born.

And the time! Occupied Israel is threatened again with genocide, and this holy family must leave in temporary exile from God's given land, for this threat -- unlike the days of Moses -- means safety is in Egypt, rather than out of it.

That is one kind of time; another is what the New Testament writers call "fulfilled." The days are complete, and now is the time when Yahweh, the God of Israel, will bring his plan to completion to deliver, once and for all, his people and his creation. The apex of history is nothing other than the birth of this powerless infant. He is the anointed one, the Messiah, the coming king, the Lord of all in human flesh.

And this is a new thing.

Looking back, we can see the signs; but in fact God has done the utterly unexpected, exactly because he is that kind of God. Even at his birth he is seen only as threat, and that will not change. This new thing God is doing will not forsake its humble beginnings: it will be faithful to the end. All the powers of the world -- religious, political, social, whatever -- will have their way with him, and he will die a cruel, shameful death as an executed enemy of the state. Just as we would have never expected the beginning, the chosen entrance, of the incarnate God into the world -- a birth canal -- so we are shocked at the end, the exit, he takes. The cross is the faithful end of a God who would come into the world through a scandal like Mary's.

So we remember the fine details, and retell the story even when we think we know it backwards and forwards. Because this story alone -- faithfully remembered in all its gossipy, uncommercial, expectations-dashing untidiness -- is capable of reminding us, truly, who it is that lies in Bethlehem's manger. This new thing that God is speaking, teasing, breathing into life -- it is indeed the hope and light of the world. Peace on earth! This tiny, helpless, vulnerable child is good news for all the people.

Who would've guessed?

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lesslie Newbigin on Salvation With and Through the Neighbor

"From its very beginning the Bible sees human life in terms of relationships. There is no attempt to strip away the accidents of history in order to find the real essence of what it is to be human. Human life is seen in terms of mutual relationships: first, the most fundamental relation, between man and woman, then between parents and children, then between families and clans and nations. The Bible does not speak about "humanity" but about "all the families of the earth" or "all the nations." It follows that this mutual relatedness, this dependence of one on another, is not merely part of the journey toward the goal of salvation, but is intrinsic to the goal itself. For knowing God, for being in communion with him, we are dependent on the one whom he gives us to be the bearer of this relation, not just as a teacher and guide on the way but as the partner in the end. There is, there can be, no private salvation, no salvation which does not involve us with one another. Therefore, if I may venture to use a metaphor which I have used elsewhere, God's saving revelation of himself does not come to us straight down from above -- through the skylight, as we might say. In order to receive God's saving revelation we have to open the door to the neighbor whom he sends as his appointed messenger, and -- moreover -- to receive that messenger not as a temporary teacher or guide whom we can dispense with when we ourselves have learned what is needed, but as one who will permanently share our home. There is no salvation except one in which we are saved together through the one whom God sends to be the bearer of his salvation."

--Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 82-83

Monday, December 21, 2009

Millard Lind on the Theopolitics of Israel's Warrior God

"The thesis of the following chapters is that the issue of Israel's history did not lie in the tension between 'myth' and 'history' but in the question of how 'myth' related to 'history.' In Israel's foundational event, the exodus, Yahweh the divine warrior overcame Egypt, not by means of human warfare, but by means of a prophetic personality who heralded a message brought to pass by miracle. There was, indeed, human activity, but it was the action of a prophet, not a warrior.

"Nor did the tension lie between two ancient institutions of Israel, the Sinai covenant and warfare; rather it was caused by an event that had happened within warfare itself, the escape from Egypt by prophetic agitation and miracle. This event, occurring within the institution of warfare, provided the basis for the new structure of the Sinai covenant, the rule of Yahweh founded upon Torah and prophetic word. The central issue of Israel's self-understanding therefore was Yahweh's relation to history through Torah and prophetic word, as brought into tension with Near Eastern myth where the gods were related to history through the coercive structures of kingship law and military power. This tension between the 'prophetic structure' of Israel and the 'kingship structures' of her neighbors is not only intrinsically evident in much of Israel's literature, but is specifically stated by that literature, as we shall see."

--Millard Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1980), 32-33

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Theodore Baker (Advent #2)

Starting today, little to no activity on the blog except pre-set poems and quotes. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope your season of Advent is a blessing and not merely one more thing.

Praise God for the birth of Jesus! That is all we can do.

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Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

By Theodore Baker (English translation)

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

Monday, December 14, 2009

William Cavanaugh on "Public" Religion and Translated "Values"

"A major problem with the attempt to make religion public is that it is still 'religion.' Asad shows how the attempt to identify a distinctive essence of religion, and thus protect it from charges that it is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of 'politics' or 'economics,' is in fact linked with the modern removal of religion from the spheres of reason and power. Religion is a universal essence detachable from particular ecclesial practices, and as such can provide the motivation necessary for all citizens of what creed to regard the nation-state as their primary community, and thus produce peaceful consensus. As we have seen, religion as a trans-historical phenomenon separate from 'politics' is a creation of Western modernity designed to tame the Church. Religion may take different cultural and symbolic expressions, but it remains a universal essence generically distinct from political power which then must be translated into publicly acceptable 'values' in order to become public currency. Religion is detached from its specific locus in disciplined ecclesial practices so that it may be compatible with the modern Christian's subjection to the discipline of the state. Echoes of Bodin resound in the public theologians' attempt to make religion the glue that holds the commonwealth together. Religion, that is, and not the Church, for the Church must be separated entirely from the domain of power.

"The great irony, then, is that in trying to arrange for the Church to influence 'the public,' rather than simply be public, the public has reduced the Church to its own terms. Citizenship has displaced discipleship as the Church's public key. In banishing theology from the public sphere, the Church has found it difficult to speak with theological integrity even within the Church. The flows of power from Church to public are reversed, threatening to flood the Church itself."

--William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (New York: T&T Clark, 2002), 82-83, presciently identifying one public pastor in particular.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Mary Karr (Advent #1)

With the onset of Advent, I had intended to do a number of posts with Christmas poems or song lyrics, but with the end of the semester and traveling for the holidays, I haven't been able to keep up with the plan. So consider this your late first installment.

I've already shared one poem from Mary Karr in this forum before, but at the time I was running out of town and unable to say much about it. I'm currently working my way through her marvelous collection Sinners Welcome, and cannot say enough about her. Karr is an accomplished and noted poet who converted to Catholicism as an adult; she has a wicked sense of humor, a metaphysical eye, and seems constitutionally unable to use language uninterestingly. Her poem below is part of her "Descending Theology" series, and speaks powerfully to the tangible creatureliness of the child born in Bethlehem.

My own poem afterward is a brief reflection on a line toward the end of her poem. I hope both are a blessing to you in this season of Advent.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Descending Theology: The Nativity

By Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly's globe that desert night the earth's
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb's first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast's sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness -- her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he'd wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

11 Theses On What Can and Cannot Be Said About Scripture

1. The Bible does not know the existence of the Bible; that is, no part of the book in our hands, Old and New Testaments, knows the book in our hands, Old and New Testaments. Therefore, any and all claims about Scripture are suprabiblical, even if subordinately substantiated by biblical texts.

2. The biblical canon is not given by the canonical books themselves, and therefore what Scripture calls "the scriptures" is not self-evident and may include extra-canonical works.

3. Canonical authority cannot rest on personal authorship, for the claims of Mosaic authorship of Torah, Davidic authorship of the Psalms, and Pauline authorship of the Pastorals are rightly contested in modern scholarship.

4. The canon was formed over centuries of development, argument, discussion, and (dis)agreement, and its formation was in the hands of a developing ecclesial context that is often denigrated today. Yet there is no possibility of dismissing the latter (out of hand) without dismissing the former (out of hand) as well.

5. That the bound collection of writings called "the Bible" by modern Christians might be synonymously referred to (absolutely, unequivocally, self-evidently) as the "Word of God" by those same Christians would undoubtedly be a surprise to the original authors, editors, compilers, and audiences of the biblical writings. The logos of God is, according to John 1, that one who is and is with God from all eternity, but in time became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth; and the dabar yhwh of the Old Testament is a particular event of God's happening upon a person in time. Neither is (a/this) collection of written works.

6. If, then, the canon of Scripture found its final form through human ecclesial decision, the Bible is itself a product of Christian tradition.

7. That the writing, editing, collecting, preserving, and unifying of the biblical canon are grounded in the providential acting of the triune God is a theological dictum -- that is, an aspect of Christian faith -- and not a given, much less given in the texts themselves.

8. That the formation and authority of the canon are neither given foundations from which all else may be derived nor established by the texts themselves is not a negative or unhelpful observation: in fact, it is both faithful to the character of the gospel and appropriate to the context of the time after Christendom. Never should we have taken for granted that or what the Bible is.

9. The very human, very messy, very public forming and finalizing of the biblical canon is energizing in its faithfulness to the gospel for two reasons. The first is its absolute solidarity with the biblical God's resolute relentlessness in using imperfect means for divine purposes. Just like calling a polygamous patriarch, anointing a murderous shepherd, sending forth a zealous Pharisee, gathering together an idolatrous people, and assuming corruptible human flesh, the God revealed through weakness reveals also through non-self-validating texts not untainted by human hands.

10. The other reason for celebration of Scripture's messiness is God's promise to lead his people by the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Christians have rightly grounded the authority of Scripture in the inspiration of the Spirit, but the reverse is no less true: in the context of the believing community we must trust that God's Spirit also led the church to gather together the right texts in the right way, for all times and all places, as the inaugurating standard for God's people embodied in whatever context, as those stories and letters and laws through which the same Spirit will breathe life anew into each generation of the people of God.

11. Thus, to repeat: Christian Scripture is a matter of trust in the faithfulness and self-revealing love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Any claims to the contrary, either to ground it more foundationally or to establish it more "biblically," move beyond faith and lose credibility in the logic of the gospel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Loving From Being Loved, Knowing From Being Known: Finding and Praising the True God in Book X of Augustine's Confessions

Introduction: After Narrative, After Conversion

The conclusion to Book IX of Saint Augustine’s Confessions would seem entirely appropriate as the conclusion to the work as a whole: Monica’s beloved son, so promising yet so rebellious, has finally converted to the Catholic faith, and after some brief time shared between them as fellow believers, the Lord who so faithfully answered Monica’s prayers takes her to be with him, and Augustine commends her witness to his readers as the extraordinary example she was. The climax of the narrative came in all its spiritual and rhetorical force, and Augustine narrates the gentle fade out with expectedly reserved finesse. End scene.

To the reader’s great surprise, Augustine has more. In fact, though “only” four books remain, the Confessions are not yet three-fifths complete. Augustine has a great deal more to say. But what more is there to say or do? The narrative is complete, and to be sure, Augustine wisely does not attempt merely to continue the story as he was telling it. Instead, he makes a critical decision, grounded in a simple truth that must not be lost to his readers: to have been converted is not the end of the story, but the beginning. If Augustine had left the story there, it would have communicated implicitly that conversion was the “point” of it all, and not the life with God created at conversion, as well as explicitly that Augustine was at the same place spiritually as a bishop ten years removed from his conversion, rather than on the same journey of transformation as all Christian believers. Book X is the spiritual bridge between the Psalms-infused, interpretive re-narration of God’s sovereign pursuit, calling, and claiming of Augustine in Books I-IX, and the conceptual theologizing of Books XI-XIII. On the one hand, Augustine continues to confess various sins in Book X, and seeks openly to present where he is in the faith a decade after his conversion, while on the other hand, he moves into sophisticated reflection on the nature of memory, the reason for confession, and other matters. The book is an amalgam of issues and topics, a rhetorical tour de force, a densely packed exploration of questions the reader may not have anticipated but Augustine clearly finds important.

The structure of Book X is both simple and complex: simple in its broad themes spread out with relative clarity, complex in the interweaving of those themes with detours, reroutes, and quick tangents, all discovered to be related to the task at hand. Augustine begins with an extended exploration of the character, purpose, and practice of confession in 1.1-5.7, which leads into a short foray (though with great resonance with what came before and what comes next) into the love of God in 6.8-7.11. A sizeable portion of Book X, and that for which it is well known, is Augustine’s sustained reflection in 8.12-24.35 on the nature and peculiar gift of memory: the intangibility of mental images, the process of learning, its relationship to the affections, the perplexing existence of (remembered) forgetfulness, the way memory leads to God yet also must be transcended, and finally the universal pursuit of happiness. In 25.36-29.40, a brief interlude emerges concerning God’s presence, love for God in return, and Augustine’s soon-to-be-infamous refrain, “Grant what you command, and command what you will.” This interlude segues seamlessly from confession and memory to active confession, in 30.41-39.64, of Augustine’s current temptations in the life of faith, walking honestly through the five senses touched on only briefly before, along with other potential sins. Finally, Augustine reaches his rhetorical and theological climax in 40.65-43.70, where he finds no other recourse for truth or salvation except in God’s mercy, poured out in the true mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, whose cross offers true and lasting healing for all who are called and cleansed by him. Book X ends in an extraordinary flurry of New Testament quotations hailing Christ as the singular answer for the mass of sins remembered and named in all the previous pages.

Due to the wealth of content available, below we will limit ourselves to exploring three particular themes in Book X: making confession, love from and for God, and finding and praising the true mediator. Both structurally and thematically, these mark the beginning, middle, and end of Book X, and in a way are the poles around which the rest of what is discussed—however greater in volume!—finds its meaning and coherence.

On Making Confession

Having spent so much time in the act of verbal-literary confession, to God and before others, Augustine takes up the topic of confession itself in the beginning of Book X. The first words of the section outline broadly what Augustine’s personal telos is in this act: “May I know you, who know me” (1.1). From this overarching aim comes the meaning of making confession—with both vertical and horizontal dimensions—though there is no one clear reason or definition. On the one hand, Augustine speaks out of the hope that, in knowing God through being known by God, he might be found “without spot or blemish” (Eph 5:27); and, on the other hand, in confessing to God through the heart and to others by the pen, he desires to love the truth and thus “come to the light” (John 3:21).

However, to confess one’s sins (or better, one’s whole self) is neither to tell God something he doesn’t already know, nor to share with others something not first initiated and revealed by God to the speaker (2.2). Yet to withhold confession would similarly not keep something about oneself hidden from God, but rather it “would be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.” The act of confessing, therefore, is the self-giving of oneself over to the One who, in delight and love, first gives one the gift of knowing oneself. For Augustine the only pleasure and the only joy reside here, in finding oneself in and through God; and thus does confession spring forth both audibly and silently—the soul cries out to God in displeasure or thanksgiving, in love the lips give voice to the heart.

“Why then should I be concerned for human readers to hear my confessions? And when they hear me talking about myself, how can they know if I am telling the truth” (3.3)? There is no simple solution to the problem of trust in public confession: “I cannot prove that my confession is true” to those who doubt. It is Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that prove decisive: “Love believes all things.” Therefore, “those whose ears are opened by love believe me.” And yet, though “those love has bonded to itself and made one” will be willing and able to believe Augustine’s confessions, for what benefit? In point of fact, Augustine has many benefits in mind. By God’s grace, in “hear[ing] the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself,” the heart of the listener will be “aroused in the love of your mercy” (3.4). To know the mercy of God in another’s life is to believe, if only for a moment, that all is not lost in one’s own. Moreover, to hear of persons whose past sins were grave but have now been conquered in Christ is a delight and a pleasure. For on account of God’s actions in the past of one such as Augustine, many will give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness and might, which “is no small gift” (4.5). Furthermore, in hearing both of past sins and of present struggles, faithful brothers and sisters, whether approving or disapproving, will pray for Augustine and insofar as they righteously discern the good and the bad in him, they are loving him. “To such people I will reveal myself.”

Yet what comes from moving from the past to the present, from “what I once was” to “who I now am” (3.4)? Apparently “many wish to know” who Augustine is now, even “demand[ing] to hear from me what I am” (3.3). Here he must tread carefully, for the “wish to learn about my inner self, where they cannot penetrate with eye or ear or mind” (3.4) may easily become voyeurism, gossip, or slander. Only God knows human beings fully, and no one is privy to that knowledge except as God reveals it, or as it is shared freely. Augustine is careful, then, to articulate that he confesses before others for the sake of those he has been given to serve, his “masters” (4.6). Not feigning to sit in judgment on himself (1 Cor 4:3), it is “in this spirit that I ask to be listened to,” “reveal[ing] not who I was, but what I have now come to be and what I continue to be.”

In what follows Augustine entreats the Lord to be present to him in what he confesses, both of what he knows of himself, and of what he does not know of himself (5.7). We might call this section, having begun in 1.1, Augustine’s confessional prolegomena to the rest of Book X, as well as his hermeneutical hindsight concerning Books I-IX. After finishing his life narrative up until conversion, the reader now hears from the speaker what he is doing in confessing; and before wading through the still festering sins and trials of the Great Rhetor, Priest and Bishop of Hippo, Augustine prepares the reader properly to receive this sacramental participation in his life, and the life of the merciful God. What comes next, what makes up a sizeable portion of Book X, is Augustine’s measured and thoughtful act of confessing today’s sins. Even as he takes the time to reflect philosophically on how it is God has made him capable of such reflection, Augustine never loses sight—as we will see in the way he concludes—that the rightful subject of confessional speech is God, and that his self-presentation will have significant impact on the lives of those he loves and is called to serve.

Love From God, Love For God

Having finished his thorough reflections on the gift, nature, function, puzzle, and role of memory, Augustine concludes he has “not found [God] outside it,” for everything he knows of God and has learned of God is available to him in his memory (24.35). Yet where does God actually dwell? Per Augustine’s experience and recollection, God is pleased to honor the memory by dwelling in it (25.36). Yet God remains immutably separate than the mind—he is “the Lord God of the mind,” “not the mind itself.” Yet once again, though God has “deigned to dwell” in Augustine’s memory, to speak of “places” with respect to the mind, much less concerning God’s presence, is ludicrous: “O truth, everywhere you preside over all who ask counsel of you” (26.37). And it is at this moment, that Augustine transitions, seamlessly, from conceptual reflection to uninhibited exultation—and to the beating heart of Book X.

Extolling the God unbounded by memory or learning, who is utterly present to all in careful attentiveness to their prayers, Augustine defines God’s “best servant” as “the person who does not attend so much to hearing what he himself wants as to willing what he has heard from you.” The remark cannot be taken as anything less than the fruit of Augustine’s hard road to submitting to God in conversion and self-renunciation. The time and pain of that journey comes forth in the beautiful opening words to the next section— “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you” (27.38)—the whole of which is renowned for its rhetorical brilliance in Latin and for the heartfelt depth of feeling Augustine speaks before God. Before his conversion, God was with Augustine, though Augustine was not with God, and delight in created things kept Augustine from delighting in God—and yet, “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” The incorporeal God, the immutable God, the God who is everywhere and therefore never limited to a single “place”—the very same God comes precisely to a man bent on “hearing what he himself wants” and overwhelms him with sound, with sight, with smell, with taste, with touch. This is the love of God: the all-consuming beauty of the divine mercy that crashes over every boundary and defense, every shield and rejection. And it is nothing less than the revelation that the greatest creaturely delight is in the Creator of heaven and earth, who gives freely and offers peace to great sinners, who satisfies every desire, who miraculously is able to be loved by his servants. This is none other than the living God discovered, narrated, and praised in the confessions of Augustine.

If “human life on earth [is] a trial in which there is no respite” (28.39), the Christian’s (and thus Augustine’s) “entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy” (29.40). The God to whom Augustine makes confession—from whom he receives love, and to whom he returns love—is the God who lifts up, who heals, who has mercy on the lowly, the sick, and the pitiful (which, by extension, includes all humanity). In such a state of need, and in light of so merciful a God, Augustine entreats the Almighty infamously, but earnestly: “Grand what you command, and command what you will.” God here is not Sheer Power, much less Absolute Decision or some other philosophical suggestion; God is the merciful one, the origin of love, the gracious giver of peace and joy. Not only is God these things—that is, not only does God have these “attributes”—God has acted this way, toward humanity in general, but toward Augustine in particular! This God is no human projection, no stale idol: he is the living God who, in judgment on all human sin and ungodliness, speaks grace and unconditional love over them, pronouncing them free from all their burdens. Augustine knows this because God has done it to him. In context, therefore, his plea is not part of an abstract debate about free will—it is a prayer to the merciful God to act concretely on his behalf! “O love, you ever burn and are never extinguished. O charity, my God, set me on fire. You command continence; grand what you command, and command what you will.”

Augustine loves God because God first loved Augustine. Accordingly, Augustine lives continently because God first commanded continence and granted it to Augustine. The story of command, will, sin, and obedience is, for Augustine, nothing short of the story of the gospel, of God’s primal, originating, needless love for sinful human beings. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son... We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19).

Finding and Praising the True Mediator

In 40.65 Augustine begins to wind down his work in Book X. He even reviews the material he has traversed, such as the external world, the body and its five senses, and “the recesses of my memory,” noting that without God he “could discern none of these things, and...found that none of these things was you.” In a sense, his explorations and confessions have been an attempt to find God, to know him with the physical senses, to locate him in the mind, to call on him for forgiveness. “But in all these investigations which I pursue while consulting you, I can find no safe place for my soul except in you.” Yes, Augustine finds himself once again where all his journeys lead him: God’s holy rest.

Yet in his prior yieldings to lust, castigated with “the sicknesses of my sins,” Augustine was greedy, “unwilling to lose” the God who had come to him yet also unwilling to give up the lie of his living (41.66). “This is why I lost you: you do not condescend to be possessed together with falsehood.” “Condescension” is the key word for this concluding section, for it points backward to Augustine’s attempt to “find” God, and points forward, finally, to its definitive answer.

Having lost God, where to turn? How to be reconciled? Was it to angels, or to prayer, or to sacred rites that he should have turned (43.67)? Many have taken such routes, among other more mystical and experiential possibilities, yet they have been ensnared, no doubt often without their knowledge, to the evil one. “They sought a mediator to purify them, and it was not the true one.” Little has been said of Christ up to this point in Book X, but it is here that Augustine finally discovers the material, bodily “place” of the true God. In mercy, love, and grace the immortal and sinless God condescends to human flesh for the sake of salvation, and is the true mediator between God and humanity insofar as he is both God and man. God “sent him so that from his example [humanity] should learn humility,” and he “appeared among mortal sinners as the immortal righteous one, mortal like humanity, righteous like God” (43.68). In a single paragraph, Augustine lays out a concise but robust Christology: Christ the true mediator, sent to teach humility, voided death by virtue of sharing in it as one “united with God by his righteousness,” thus making salvation known both to past and future saints, being both truly human and the eternal Word equal and one with the one true God.

The Incarnation, however, is, like all matters of the Catholic faith for Augustine, not simply about doctrinal purity or theological sophistication. Rather, the Incarnation of God is cause for worship and exaltation: “How you have loved us, good Father: you did not spare your only Son but delivered him up for us sinners. How you have loved us” (43.69; cf. Rom 8:32). Christ was victorious in life and death before God precisely because he was victim; and because he was both priest and sacrifice, his offering cleanses sinners of their “many and great...diseases,” for his “medicine is still more potent.” Echoing his encounter with the Books of the Platonists and the first chapter of John (VII.9.13), Augustine asks who could have thought the Logos of God was lovingly near to humanity “unless he had become flesh and dwelt among us?”

Bringing that past moment of indecision into the present, he recalls nearly “taking flight to live in solitude” (43.70). But completing the circle, and formally culminating the narrative connections of Books I-X, Augustine recalls God forbidding him to flee, and comforting him with the fact that Christ’s death provides for living not for oneself, but for Christ (2 Cor 5:15). The climactic finish entails a furious succession of biblical quotations, some from Paul, but primarily (and fittingly) from the Psalms (6:3; 21:27; 54:23; 61:5; 68:6; 118:18, 22; 142:10). He makes closing, implicit reference to the Eucharist, from which “in my poverty I desire to be satisfied...together with those who” share it with him. Book X’s final words: “And they shall praise the Lord who seek him.”


We have seen how complex and interconnected the themes and subjects of Book X of the Confessions are, but perhaps nothing illuminates their coherence more than, having just discussed the middle and closing sections, restating Augustine’s opening words: “May I know you, who know me” (1.1). Like his later expositor Calvin, Augustine must take up the task to find and to know God as the God who knows Augustine—no knowledge of God without knowledge of self—and thus must make confession, must explore within himself, where (and how) it is that God has been and continues to be. Ultimately, however, what Augustine finds—as he knew he would—is the God of all mercy, neither empirically locatable nor identifiable through the senses, but revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that true mediator between God and humanity, whose gracious healing is sufficient for even such a sinner as Augustine of Hippo.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Against Optimism: On the Task Before Us

So long as we continue to live in a world where the poor are forgotten, the homeless are ignored, women are raped, children are abused, billions hunger, the rich hoard, farmers are dispossessed, the land is neglected, infants die, the sick are untreated, sex slaves are sold, the religious exploit the vulnerable, the powerful fleece the powerless, the nations make war, disease is omnipresent, families are torn apart, wells are poisoned by corporations, nuclear arsenals grow, thieves take what they want, women are disenfranchised, human beings are tortured, prostitutes have clients, deceit is praised, pregnancy is a threat, peoples are wiped out, the air is toxic, violence is glorified, divorce is the norm, and narcissism is a virtue, there will never exist such a great thinker or big idea or impressive PowerPoint or UN Committee or activist group or progressive agenda or global citizen or charismatic politician or revolutionary policy or perfect solution or technological agenda or millennium plan or world leader or think tank bigwig or Ivy League professor or snake oil chief executive entrepreneurial philanthropist faith healer extraordinaire that will be able to convince me to be an optimist.

No; instead, let the words of Rabbi Irving Greenberg haunt every Optimism, every Big Solution, every arrogance that We Have Finally Solved The Future:

"No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children."

Now, then, in place of lofty claims we could neither know nor implement, let us return to the hard, undoubtedly small, inevitably particular, sometimes unnoticeable, certainly unspectacular work of loving our neighbors, raising our children, tending our lands, and serving the needy. And may the God of hope -- not of optimism -- give strength to our hands for the task.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Voyeurism, Violence, and Virtual Reality, or: Is Reality TV Our Gladiator Games?

This week I came across an excellent article over at Slate about Bill Hayes, the producer behind Jon and Kate Plus Eight and other reality TV shows about big families on TLC. It reminded me that about six months ago I wrote up an extensive post about the ethics of reality television and submitted it, without success, for publication on an entertainment blog. I forgot about it all this time, but in the midst of the ongoing extraordinary popularity of reality shows, I thought I might go ahead and post it now in this venue. There are clear resonances with my piece (written just two months later) on film and the ethics of cinematic violence, so I thought it might be of interest in light of that conversation. I've left the text below mostly unedited, so forgive the now-outdated references to what was happening at the moment.

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Reality television has never appealed to me. In the pre-fad days when it merely consisted of MTV's Road Rules or The Real World -- when I would have been the target audience! -- I couldn't have cared less, and the onset of Survivor and the now-decade long ensuing stream of imitations and incarnations of every imaginable sort of "reality TV" did nothing to change my interest.

But reality TV is more popular than ever. One of the hallmark lessons of the actors strike last year was that the networks could keep making money off of their continually (and sometimes most) profitable shows -- which, of course, were unscripted. Not much of a leverage tool for actors when you realize you're not really all that necessary for profit.

And so the 2000s have been the Decade of Reality. Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, The Real World, The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show, The Simple Life, Miami Ink, The Girls Next Door, Little People Big World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, America's Next Top Model, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Then of course you have the biggest gun of all, American Idol, which is a beast unto itself.

I only have experience with one reality show: Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Last summer, after moving to Atlanta, in the midst of finding a church home and searching for jobs, my wife and I watched a lot of television: we finished The Wire, went through all six seasons of The Sopranos, and watched the first season of Mad Men. Lots of time, lots of TV. And Katelin ended up discovering Jon and Kate, and fell in love. I resisted for a while but finally gave in to watching it when she had it on. The kids were cute, it was fascinating to see them grow as a family, and it was nuts to imagine having eight children under 3 years old before turning 30. A great concept.

We would get into discussions here and there about the way Jon and Kate treated each other, or especially (for me) about the ethics of having cameras in your house in the centrally formative years of your children, but for the most part, it became a bit of a weekly staple in the East home. And so much for the better.

Fast forward to the last couple months, where Jon and Kate Gosselin -- mostly frumpy, normal people who happened to have twins then sextuplets, living somewhere in New England -- adorn the covers of every single gossip rag and tabloid in publication. They are the center of a firestorm of accusations about infidelity, poor parenting, flaking out, etc. They've become "controversial," "hot topic," "celebrities." Us Weekly is analyzing Kate's awkward haircut, for God's sake.

Somehow, a popular TV show that wasn't in existence two years ago has so transformed the lives of an ordinary married couple -- who, by the way, have traveled around the country and spoken to churches about God's presence and blessing in the midst of their impossibly stressful situation -- that anything is in play in the next six months. They might divorce, they might move out of their new million-dollar home, they might have open affairs with significant others.

But one thing they won't do: Cancel the show.


Bill Simmons, ESPN Page 2's Sports Guy, loves reality TV. One of his all-time favorites is MTV's The Real World, and any iteration or offshoot like Real World-Road Rules Challenge or The Duel. He refers to them constantly in his columns and regularly discusses them in his podcasts with friends like JackO and Dave Jacoby.

What Simmons is famous for is finding and reveling in the unintentional comedy of idiots and blowhards who make a fool of themselves or who are so ridiculous, absurd, or over-the-top in their insanity or wrongness of what they do or say that it is hilarious to viewers. The best example is probably that of Corey Feldman singing on Valentine's Day, apparently in utter seriousness and for all the world to see, to his wife on the VH1 show The Two Coreys. The man is truly making a fool out of himself, but damn if it isn't drop-dead funny for us to watch.

The only real possibility for something that is profoundly uncomfortable, devastatingly sad, or even wrong to step over the line from "able to be enjoyed by viewers whatever is said or done" to "probably shouldn't be laughed at or enjoyed" is, as far as I can tell, serious physical injury (putting someone in a hospital, losing an essential limb, rape) or death. Anything and everything before and up to that point is fair game, not only because it wouldn't transgress the serious-physical-detriment boundary, but precisely because these people choose to be on these shows. They know the stakes, they know the rules, they know the game. Usually they are well paid. In a sense -- more than that, in reality -- they are a kind of performer, choosing to be broadcast before the world, snafus and peccadilloes and all, as and for nothing more or less than our entertainment.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who watch reality TV.


I have no interest in lecturing, belittling, or moralizing Bill Simmons. He is not the issue. He does, however, represent well the broad swath of reality TV viewership across America. To that extent, I want briefly to take a look at the combination of the picture I have painted of the situation combined with the type of viewer Simmons represents, and then to wonder what the witness of the church might be in response.

Essentially, reality TV is about voyeurism. To some extent, all forms of storytelling, fictional or otherwise, are or have the potential to be voyeuristic, in the sense that we get a thrill from stepping into someone else's shoes and, through their noteworthy experiences (remember, we don't read people who are inactive: their lives are full of salacious and gripping action ours rarely see), experiencing for ourselves things we almost certainly would not ask or expect otherwise but are, without a doubt, exceptional and exciting. But storytelling needn't inevitably be voyeuristic; we may, through a book, poem, movie, or song, imaginatively see an exotic place, or hunt a criminal, or feel the guilt of a thief, without doing it for the sake of "being" someone else, much less looking down on other forms of life.

The point, regardless, is that art is a healthy cultural way of exploring life through others' eyes. Similarly, nonfiction art -- whether portrait, history, poetry, biography, or documentary -- does the same, and through the power of imagination, but by a different route: the historically concrete lives of real human beings. (Not uncreated; only not humanly created.)

Where, in this vista of human artistic expression, exquisitely viable and always praiseworthy when in done in humane and truthful ways, does the modern show called "reality TV" properly fit?

That, to me, ought to be the central, grounding, pressing question for all who care about American culture, healthy television, and especially the Christian witness vis-a-vis both.


If it has become part and parcel of the practice of watching reality TV, that serious damage may be inflicted by or upon participants, and/or that participants will be laughed at or cheered on in acts that in any other situation viewers would neither join nor applaud, then the medium itself has signaled the end of any legitimate ethical justification for conscientious viewership. There is more to human life than the financial profit of participants or producers; than the supposedly free choice of persons captured by cameras for others' enjoyment; than the mere physical survival of people profoundly and lastingly damaged in ways not limited to the emotional, relational, and spiritual. There is nothing legitimate about sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned home and watching, by virtue of a screen which projects moving images, human beings say and do things that are stupid, nonsensical, hurtful, painful, wrong, insulting, or controversial.


This is a practice that destroys the lives of those in front of the cameras and profits those behind them. It is a practice that, perhaps in a less obvious but certainly no less serious way, destroys the lives of those sitting on the other end of these moving images and laughing at them or discussing them the next day at work, because it both leads us to think of the screen-images as something other than human beings and draws us into a way of thinking where what we would never do or teach or approve of others doing becomes the appropriate object of our laughter and entertainment. We are happy to discuss these people's lives and choices as if they would not in any other case make us not only feel pity but worry about the tragic consequences (not least suicide). Perhaps we berate the stupidity or immorality of their decisions ... but we're still watching.

In this sort of watching, we are transformed from human beings created for relationship, for welcoming community, into subhuman automatons laugh-tracking at the pratfalls of those whom we have lost the ability to see as fundamentally the same as ourselves -- that is, we have forgotten that these people are our neighbors.

As should be clear by now, I believe this arrangement is wrong, and therefore that it ought to stop. If not from the television side (they've got all that money to make and all those people to exploit), then from the viewer side -- particularly on the part of Christians.

But we have our blinders on. We remember the Romans' lustily cheering on the leonine dismemberment of slaves or the brutal, bloody battling of the warriors to the death, and we scoff at their barbarism. But reality TV is our gladiator games, each living room our family-made coliseum. We cheer and applaud as young, immature, ignorant, and foolish people self-destruct until they hit bottom, lash out against the cruelty of the world, participate in the same self-serving demise that is our own -- and we don't have a second thought. It's all in good fun. They're getting paid. Everyone has a choice. It's funny. Don't take things so seriously.

And one more college co-ed gets fed to the lions.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part VI: Sabbath

The Sabbath generally gets a bad rap with modern Christians. On the whole it is viewed from a distance as a once-good, then-abused antiquated practice that Jesus clarified as neither necessary nor beneficial. Even though some of the very structures of modern work life in America—weekends, holidays, businesses closed on Sunday, no mail on Sunday, and so on—were inspired by or structured from the spirit of the Sabbath, it remains for the most part something we simply read on a page but don’t practice in our lives; and certainly not something embedded into the meaning of living as disciples of Jesus.

To be sure, Christians are not required to practice the Sabbath (inasmuch as they are “required” to do anything!), and it was an important, indeed essential adaptation of the Jewish gospel proclaimed to the Gentile world that the practices that marked out membership in the people Israel were not essential for inclusion into the church—that is, one needn’t become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Yet in the freedom to remain Gentiles and not to “have” to do certain practices Christians have often fallen into the habit of believing that what is not required would not be good to practice in itself, when in fact some of the most life-giving, enriching, healthy practices may be just those that can only be done out of the freedom we have been given in Christ.

The Sabbath is one of those practices. The Sabbath is, at root, about the limits of creaturely existence, about living human life precisely as a human. Because God is the only one who may truly be called infinite, our finite lives as humans may be received either as a threat (we are not in control!) or as a gift (we are not in control—and amen for that). Sabbath rest decides for the latter: to receive from God our finite, temporal, vulnerable lives as gifts to be celebrated and delighted in and shared with others. That we need sleep each night, that we need habits and rhythms for the days and weeks and years, that we simply cannot work without ceasing, that our efforts by their sheer willpower will not always succeed—all these things are gifts of the Creator to creatures for the flourishing proper to what we have been made to be. Sabbath names the limits of our abilities and our energies, saying, “Here, and no farther,” and with gladness we thank God for the grace of his boundlessness.

Like the other disciplines, Sabbath orders us to the peaceful rhythm of love for God and neighbor. It recognizes our profound need for freedom from the constant encroachment of noise and stuff by blocking out time for quiet and non-consumption. There simply is no need to consume (or to be consumed) when we can do nothing better than to delight in God and God’s good gifts to us.

Sabbath is especially powerful as a discipline in American culture in its witness to a way of life ordered not by control, activity, or ceaseless “connection” (such that we are always available, always distractible, always ready to keep the world running) but by the gracious rule of the one God who reigns forever and completely. Sabbath can even be overwhelming, a kind of merciful judgment, in the way it reminds us so sharply that we can in fact stop—that God has made us for this very thing, not to produce-produce-produce, but to love and be loved, to delight and be found delightful. Our perpetual “on empty” is no sign to a dangerously tired world of an alternative way, but if our lives are filled (even as faithful friends and tireless coworkers) with the grace of a God who gives us rest, who longs for us to have true rest, then perhaps we have something to offer after all.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Sabbath rest is the creaturely practice of recognizing the limits of finite human living, marking out space in time devoid of work, resting from the speed and busyness of daily life, and delighting in God and God’s good gifts to us.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Elvis Perkins

As part of our beginning steps toward practicing Sabbath on a regular basis, yesterday Katelin and I stayed away from television, internet, and telephone -- so (blessedly) I wasn't able to get this post up in time for reasons befitting the spirit of the series.

The poem below is from Elvis Perkins' most recent album, which has taken longer than I expected to warm up to, but is finally opening up its delirious beauty. The song is a glorious spin on political eschatology and the frenzied end-of-the-world scenarios that start making the rounds around election season.

My own poem afterward is a reflection I wrote in class this past week, inspired by Billy Collins' poetry of late. I deal so much in words -- creating, assessing, devouring, digesting, spewing -- it was helpful to find and explore a metaphor for what it feels like sometimes.

(I have recently submitted this poem for publication, so I have taken it off here for the time being, just in case.)

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By Elvis Perkins

Though I forget your name
I remember your sweet face
Till doomsday fell I

Man I went wild last night
Oh I went feeling all right
I don't let doomsday bother me
Do you let it bother you?

I know you told me once and again
Will it mean that we won't be friends?
When doomsday rears her ugly head again

And though you voted that awful man
I would never refuse your hand
On doomsday, on doomsday

Not in all my wildest dreams, it never once was seen
That doomsday would fall anywhere near a Tuesday
But flight across the skies seeing fate before my eyes
There isn't any sense to a good by-and-by
Oh I don't plan to die
Nor should you plan to die

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quaestio Disputata: On the Death of Christ as a Sacrifice for Sin

Question. Whether Jesus’ death on the cross should be understood as a sacrifice for sin?

Objection 1. It seems that it should not, because a sacrificial understanding of the cross inevitably leads to an understanding of God as needing to be placated and appeased by the blood sacrifice of a human being—not only an awful and utterly unhelpful image, but one that is unfaithful to the biblical vision of the nature and character of God.

Objection 2. Further, a sacrificial interpretation necessarily fosters an image of God that is non-Trinitarian: instead of the one God who acts in Christ, Jesus is the “Son” sent by the “Father” to die a brutal and horrific death in absolute submission to the paternal will. Not only, then, does God become a demanding monad or a schizophrenic binity, but God’s own action opens itself up to the charge of “divine child abuse.”

Objection 3. Further, given the inherent violence at the heart of a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death, the politics of such an interpretation—that is, the way in which this reading of the narrative is embedded, embodied, and scripted into the life of communities—has been, and ineluctably will be, irrevocably violent. The violence characterizes both the powerful and the powerless: the former justify their coercion by recourse to the divine, and the latter are compelled to submit to oppression in imitation of the obedience of God’s own Son.

Objection 4. Further, the entire symbolic worldview of the sacrificial system is antiquated and has no purchase in the modern world. It is meaningless to tell persons living today that “Jesus is the sacrifice for your sins,” much less to call upon ancient accounts of sacrifice, as if to become a Christian one must accept the ancient conception of the gods and their appeasement by sacrificing living beings for their benefit.

On the contrary, Jesus’ death on the cross, while multifaceted and multilayered in its capaciousness for salvific meaning and theological interpretation, inescapably entails understanding it as a sacrifice for sin. The background of the Old Testament and the interpretive lens of the New Testament render it so, and richly, for in a world that has not moved beyond conceptions and enactments of sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus proclaims the gracious end of sacrifice and invites all to participate in the self-sacrificial character and peaceable community of the triune God of Israel.

I answer that more than anything, as a hermeneutical lens for understanding the death of Christ on the cross, sacrifice is simply and absolutely unavoidable if we are committed to being faithful to the New Testament documents. Prior to those texts, however, the Old Testament stands as the guiding framework and symbolic infrastructure for making sense of any meaning in the Lord’s anointed being arrested, tortured, and executed as divinely accursed—yet raised to new life, vindicated in obedience, and exalted in glory. The originating interpretive “stuff” which the first century Jewish believers had to work with when approaching Jesus’ death after the fact were the primal narratives, and specifically the Levitical installation for how to deal with sin, found in Torah. Notions of animal sacrifice, the life-and-death power of blood, the need for purity, corporate atonement, transference of sins, expiation and propitiation, the scapegoat, and the Passover lamb (among others) all find their origin in these magisterial texts.1

Thus for the early communities of those gathered by the witness of the risen Lord, shaped fundamentally as they were by the stories and rituals of the Hebrew Scriptures, the raw materials for looking backwards in Spirit-led discernment of the meaning of the shameful death of Israel’s Messiah were already embedded in their worldview and religious construal of God and human life. This is made clear in nearly every book of the New Testament. Paul, the earliest representative writer of the early church, writing just 20 years after Jesus, calls him “our Passover Lamb [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), and similarly calls him the “sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion]” put forth by God (Rom 3:25).2 The Johannine literature calls Jesus “the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins” (1 John 2:2; 4:10), as well as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and the inimitably worthy “lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12). The Synoptic Gospels no less portray Jesus through a sacrificial lens, primarily through their presentation of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples as a new kind of Passover meal, forever transformed in light of Jesus’ impending death. Noting the Day of the Unleavened Bread and the preparation for the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, Jesus eats the meal with his disciples then passes around broken bread and shared wine as Jesus’ own “body” and “blood of the (new) covenant” (Matt 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23). In these ways the broad contours of the New Testament texts appropriate their received concepts of sacrifice and sin toward understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.

However, no other document more forcefully or frequently centralizes the idea of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin as the book of Hebrews. The book’s heart is the middle section of 4:14–10:18, in which the author articulates a vision of Christ as the chief and final priest (4:14-16), who is able both to end once and for all the entire superstructure of sacrifices constantly being offered to atone for sins (9:11-14) and to make the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sins, once for all (9:23-28). He is able to do this because, unlike a normal priest, who as a sinful man must make sacrifices (from the blood of an animal) for himself as well as the people, Christ’s sinlessness deems him both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice (7:23-28), and in offering himself in the altar of heaven “made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14). Clearly, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ death on the cross is explicitly and unequivocally the sacrifice for sin.3

The question at this point, then, is, What is sacrifice?4 Expanding the narrowed definition with which the term has been marginalized, Robert Jenson identifies “a sacrifice [as] any prayer spoken not only with language but also with objects and gestures, so that these latter are like the verbal prayer ‘offered.’”5 And as exemplified in the book of Hebrews, any “common distinction between the offerer and what is offered” is “obliterated.”6 It must also be noted with Thomas Torrance that “in the Old Testament liturgy it is always God himself who provides the sacrifice whereby he draws near to the worshipper and draws the worshipper near to himself.”7 The sacrifice is offered by God’s own provision and action, thus originating in God’s desire for the severing of alienation.

How does sacrifice work? According to Edward Irving, the logic of sacrifice involves an understanding of sin as pollution, a corruption in which all humanity shares. In the Incarnation, however, God himself assumes that polluted flesh, and it is that same body “yet kept from sin by the agency of the Spirit...that becomes the first instance of restored humanity and the basis of redemption for others.”8 In this way Jesus’ entire life, and not only his death, may be affirmed as a sacrifice to God, as the one “who until his death was the gift of the Spirit to the world, now becomes the giver.”9

It is fundamental in this discussion to remember both that Jesus offers himself on the cross and that Jesus is both divine and human, so that, on the one hand, the gift of this sacrifice is freely self-chosen by a human being, while on the other hand, the offering is God’s own self given in behalf of others. The former point affirms the continuity between Jesus and us—that the one obedient to God unto death lived a truly human life—and the latter the discontinuity—that the cross and resurrection is an event in the triune life of God, over against but for us. The grace of this discontinuity is that, though God chooses to suffer for us, the sacrifice is once for all: “being-a-victim is not valorized—it is exposed as that which has no justification before the triune God who has acted to dismantle its claim to be a redemptive technique in the cultures of the world.”10 The only sacrifice to which Christians are now called, as people saved by/from sacrifice, is the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15) and the “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1) of holy and worshipful bodies given in loving service to the world.11

Is such an understanding inherently violent? Does it lead inevitably to coercion and/or passive submission? According to Michael Gorman, for Paul “the reality of the not for him a symbol of divine violence that permits or even encourages violent acts and language. Rather, it is above all the reality and symbol of divine inclusion and love.”12 Thus the logic of the cross—and, necessarily, of discipleship—is one of “selfless concern for others rather than some form of self-harm,”13 particularly with regard to those in power. Alternatively, because once and for all there is an end to sacrifice, Christian proclamation intrinsically rules out the need or possibility for scapegoats, offering instead a people freed from the temptation to falsely blame others and capable of naming the dehumanizing injustice of coercion and false sacrifice. Where the world can only see dirtiness, and when the powers whip up a murderous mob, the church of the risen Lamb speaks a better word: one of a purity not dependent on human hands—of a victim whose voice could not be silenced—of a cross that hangs empty, forever.

Therefore, the use of sacrifice to understand the work of Christ on the cross does not inevitably lead to a God needing to be appeased by blood, instead remaining faithful to the biblical God who provides graciously for his people’s cleansing.

Therefore, when cross and resurrection are understood as events in the life of God, when the Father giving and the Son obeying and the Spirit empowering are seen in mutual concert and kenotic love, and when the violence of the cross is viewed as of human and not divine origin, the triunity of God is affirmed in the sacrifice of Jesus.

Therefore, the politics of the lamb who was slain in fact leads to empowerment of victims and the renunciation of coercive violence, for as followers of the crucified and risen Lord Christians are liberated from the meaninglessness of oppression and empowered peaceably to subvert the structures of injustice as a cruciform community.

Therefore, for those parts of the world that do not retain sacrificial cults (though it must be noted that much of the world does), in continuing both to perpetuate scapegoat tactics and to employ the image of sacrifice in heroic or civic discourse, they actually remain powerfully open to the good news of the one who gave himself up for them.

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[1] Colin Gunton rightly points out that the “[o]ne unifying feature” of the “great variety of practice and interpretation” of sacrifice in the Old Testament is the “single centre” of the Exodus event. See Gunton, The Actuality of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.
[2] All biblical quotations are taken from Today’s New International Version.
[3] For a helpful summary of the priestly material in Hebrews, see Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: Volume One: The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 441-46.
[4] For a helpful analysis of sacrifice and holiness in both Testaments, see D. R. Jones, “Sacrifice and Holiness,” in Sacrifice and Redemption, ed. S. W. Sykes (New York: Cambridge, 1991), 9-21. [5] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 192.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 110. He goes on: “so in the actualized liturgy of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, it is God himself who in atoning propitiation draws near to us and draws us near to himself.”
[8] Gunton, Actuality, 132.
[9] Ibid., 135.
[10] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 vols.; Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 457. See also the proposal of S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), which I commend even if I do not agree entirely.
[11] For a creative account of the centrality of worship, story, and character for a theology of sacrifice, see S. W. Sykes, “Outline of a Theology of Sacrifice,” in Sacrifice, 282-98.
[12] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 145.
[13] Ibid., 146.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Brotherly Dialogue, Part II: On Foot-Washing, Violence, Jesus, and Justice

This is a continued dialogue between me and my brother Garrett based on the painting by Lars Justinen entitled "Servant to the World. You can read Part I here.

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Brad: I think I'm interested in a general way with what you conceive of "foot washing" as a practice to mean or convey. As a visual or rhetorical image, it seems to me to be uniquely intimate, personally connecting, and radically servant-like. So when the Master bends to wash the feet of his followers in John, he is modeling for them what they are absolutely not beneath, and indeed must practice after he is gone: bow to the lowest position in intimacy and connection with others, and serve them. And when Jesus comes to Judas, he even washes Judas' feet because, though he knows what is to come, Judas remains one of the twelve and is one of the men who has walked with Jesus these last weeks and months. Does he wash the feet of "the betrayer of the Son of God"? Yes, but as the one betrayed, and not only that, but before the act is committed! It seems to me that those two facts mark a central distinction between Jesus the foot-washer of Judas and Jesus the foot-washer of bin Laden. Although we might be able to posit a theological account of how Jesus is and was "with" those who have suffered under bin Laden such that he is actually one (as God) that is wronged in bin Laden's evil actions, that seems an abstract end-around the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet.

Does that make sense? The image is not the father or mother of a man or woman lost in the towers or on one of the planes, or of one abused and oppressed in Taliban Afghanistan, but of a towel-wasted first century man in a United Nations-esque room washing the feet of a mass murderer who claims the sanction of God for his actions. Is there fundamentally a "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing? To me, the latter involves a radically different image and message than the former.

I guess part of the issue here has to do with being alive, yet also being unrepentant. The painting does judge me as not flinching at the notion of Jesus washing Bush's feet, however much I find myself in absolute disagreement with his decisions as a President (and of course, uniquely as one who claims to be a Christian). And it succeeds in disarming me to the extent that I'm just not sure what to do with him. Which raises the question for both men: what difference would it make if they were dead? Because being that they are both still alive, does enemy-loving foot-washing entail the possibility of conversion and thus repentance from having perpetrated mass violence? Again, I feel the judgment: it is actually (however distantly so) a possibility in my mind that Bush could, in his lifetime, come around to see the wrongness of his actions. But I more or less view bin Laden as a static case: as a murderous and hateful terrorist arch-leader who is and always has been and will be the same thing, utterly judged by God and fixed in his moral stasis. Undoubtedly that is wrong simply because of the example of Paul, the Christian-killer. So I'm open to being wrong at this point.

But how would we deal with this picture if both men were dead? How do we deal with evil posthumously? Traditionally, Christian doctrine affirms a radical openness of grace unto death -- that is, God's judgment enters unreservedly into the picture after the "chance" of life. For an unrepentant murderer, traditionally that would then entail the justice of God as unleashed in hell. Of course I don't know how to go near that faithfully or with integrity, but the very question implies two things: first, that death changes something in the way we envisage Jesus' loving (our) enemies, and second, that at some point divine justice is revealed. So what should we do with it with regard to figures, whether living or dead?

I guess my final question has to do with conceptualizing, on the one hand, God's enemy-love in the present, and on the other, God's visible and decisive justice for those who are oppressed. If an abused woman cries out to God night after night and her husband is arrested and convicted and forever taken away from her, there is nothing available to me able to understand the image of Jesus washing her husband's feet in response to (that is, coterminous with) her crying out for deliverance. In the same way, bin Laden has not been apprehended or punished. Should we pray that he be? May Jesus only wash his feet in concert with corporal justice? I don't know -- it all seems to get bizarre at that point. I guess the in-the-middle-ness of the whole situation problematizes everything. What comes to mind is God hardening Pharaoh's heart or striking Herod dead in Acts. If Jesus is Israel's God revealed in a human life, however we comprehend God's equal treatment of evildoers, we also have to find a way to deal with his justice toward them on behalf of those who suffer.

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Garrett: I agree with your definition of foot-washing. Nothing to argue about there. I do not think that it matters whether Jesus washed Judas' feet before or after his act of betrayal, especially in John! Even when Jesus is washing their feet he says "And you are clean, though not all of you," and John follows with the commentary, "For he knew who was to betray him." When Jesus washes his disciples feet, Judas' betrayal is at the forefront. And importantly, Jesus washing Judas' feet does not clean Judas, and yet Jesus still does it!

You said, "the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet." I just can't agree with you here. Your assumption seems to be that Jesus would not wash the feet of anyone who has oppressed or killed particular human beings. Is that correct? If so, Jesus would not wash the feet of any soldier in the American military who has killed another human. Would you go that far? If not, why not? If your basis for Jesus not washing bin Laden's feet is that he has oppressed and murdered other humans, how is that different than those who have killed others in war or are a part of a system that oppresses other people?

I definitely believe there is a fundamental "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing. Is your contention that Jesus would die for someone whose feet he would not wash? It seems contradictory to me to say that Jesus would die for someone but not serve them. Why not? The cross and foot-washing, in my mind, serve as paradigms for the way Christians should act in the world: always adopting a posture of humility, servanthood, and self-sacrifice. You have argued that I have "sentimentalized" the phrase "love your enemies" by suggesting Jesus would wash the feet of a murderer. I see just the opposite happening. On an abstract level you are willing to say Jesus would die for bin Laden, but yet, on a concrete level you are not willing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. To me, Jesus' feet-washing is what the cross looks like in every day life.

What difference would it make if they were dead? I get your point here, but I don't think it takes away from the truth of the painting. Even if they were dead, the painting is representing them as alive. It is a representation of what Jesus would be willing to do to a sick murderer. It is not an eschatological painting of Jesus washing their feet in the kingdom of God. It is not a statement about what will happen to these men and women on the day of judgment. It is a statement about the one who knew "that the Father had given all things into his hands," and yet was willing to get on his knees to wash the feet of 12 sinners, one of whom would betray Jesus himself. It is a statement about the willingness of Jesus to serve any person, regardless of the sinfulness of their life. Jesus does not condition his serving other people by whether or not they are repentant. Surely Jesus would hope for the conversion and repentance of both men from having perpetrated mass violence, but he does not wash their feet solely for that purpose. He washes people's feet because that is what it looks like for one human to love another human, and to recognize that even the most despicable murderer is created in the image of God.

How is it that you draw such a fine distinction between the two? How can you assume that bin Laden is a hopeless case, while Bush is not? How can you assume one is callous, while the other might possibly change? God has hardened bin Laden's heart, but not Bush's? Surely God will judge them both and surely God knows their hearts, but how can you? To designate some as lost causes and others as reachable seems to me like you are playing God. There is no way you can know. All you can do is hope that the power of God is strong enough to overcome the hardness of any heart.

How do we deal with evil posthumously? We leave the judgment of the living and the dead to God. It is not ours to decide. God will judge rightly and I believe we can trust him in that. But until Christ returns, we must go on loving others, even murderers, with the love shown by Jesus, manifested in the entirety of his life, including the cross and the washing of his disciples feet.

Again, I have to emphasize, the poster is not a picture of God's judgment. It sounds like you want the picture to represent the entirety of who God was, and is, and is to come. It cannot do that and it does not try to do that. It is a picture of what God looked like when incarnated as the man Jesus. It is a picture of what Jesus' love looked like in action. It is a picture of what that same love would look like today. It is not a picture of the day of judgment. It does not give the whole story. It can't. It is one picture. It can't say everything.